The story about the tortoise and hare is a familiar tale of a famous Greek storyteller named Aesop. It starts out with a hare bragging about how fast he could run and that nobody could beat him. The tortoise listened, but didn’t seem overly impressed. In fact, he challenged the hare to a race! Of course, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the hare being so much faster than the tortoise, so of course he would win. The other animals laid out the course through the forest and the great race began. The rabbit took off like a shot and ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. He stopped about midway ad thought, “There’s a nice place to play; I’ll just play here for a while since I’ve got lots of time.” He played in the green grass and then he decided he was still way ahead. “I’ll take a nap,” he thought. So, the hare laid down under a nice shade tree and had a very nice nap. When he woke up and thought, “Okay, the tortoise should be about caught up by now, so I’ll just run to the finish line.” When he got there, surprise, surprise, surprise! There was the tortoise waiting for him on the winning side of the line.
I thought about the story as I was sitting in a restaurant on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas carols, seeing a Christmas tree and lots of decorations around the restaurant, which, by the way, was Chinese. I wasn’t ready for it. Granted, I’ve seen trees lit up and yard ornaments moving and Christmas decorations in stores since Labor Day. But somehow sitting in a Chinese restaurant the second day after Thanksgiving and seeing a fully decorated restaurant playing Christmas carols was just too much.
So, what is that got to do with the tortoise and hare? There are people who can’t wait to celebrate Christmas. They love Christmas. They love the lights, the trees, the scents, the parties, the food, the gifts and even the shopping. There are folks who have the house and yard are decorated by Thanksgiving weekend or shortly thereafter. They’re usually all ready for Christmas before December 1st even arrives. They start off at full tilt and keep going – like the hare.
Then there are others who don’t decorate the tree until a week before or even the night of Christmas Eve, even though the presents are bought and wrapped, the cooking has been is been done, and gifts have been shipped off to friends and relatives who will not be around the Christmas tree this year. Those are the tortoises, not because they lack Christmas spirit, but because they take it slowly they don’t rush into it. Many of them wait to begin celebrating Christmas at all until Christmas Eve around midnight, but then they’ll celebrate for another 12 days.
There’s nothing wrong with being a hare when decorating for Christmas if that’s a family tradition. I know my family always put the Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving weekend, and usually so do I. I like the lights and the sparkle of the fake crystal ornaments, and it makes an otherwise sad time of year for me a little happier. I don’t think Jesus would condemn me for that. But in my religious practice I’m more of a tortoise. I don’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, I try not to hear them, (especially the one that everyone hopes to avoid hearing until Christmas Eve at least) but I can’t escape hearing the music on the radio when I go out to the stores or even visit friends. I’m an Advent person.
Advent people are more like the tortoise than the hare, at least liturgically. Their homes often have an advent wreath instead of boughs of greens with red bows, lots of colored lights, and baby Jesus in the manger already. Advent people look for the coming of Jesus in a way that is more reflective and a bit more introspective than some other Christians do. For Advent people it’s about the waiting. It’s about preparing, and by preparing they don’t mean pouring the brandy on the fruitcake or making the Christmas putting and setting it aside to age. It is about preparing inwardly more than outwardly for a great festival season of the church.
The comparison of the tortoise and the hare may not be totally fair, because it really depends on things like family tradition, church tradition, or even personal preference. The important thing is that come December 25th, the tortoise and the hare are both at the finish line or, in the case of the tortoises, at the second start line because that’s when Christmas begins.
It’s almost aggravating to have heard Christmas music on the radio starting December 1st and increasing in number of Christmas versus non-Christmas songs as Christmas approaches. Then, come Christmas morning, you may hear carols but by evening not a carol to be heard; meanwhile, the Advent people are just getting ready to start singing Christmas carols and they will sing them until January 6th which is the epiphany. Also, when a person goes into stores on Christmas Eve, the Christmas stuff has already been moved to the seasonal clearance aisle and the store is now full of red hearts, chubby cherubs, chocolate candy boxes, and appurtenances of Valentine’s Day which can range anywhere from a teddy bear with “I love you” embroidered on his chest to very frilly lingerie.
Whether a person is a tortoise or a hare when it comes to when they start celebrating and when they start preparing and when they start getting ready for Christmas is less important than the fact that it becomes less of a commercial event and more a spiritual one, which is the intent of Christmas. Our pagan brothers and sisters would say we should celebrate the returning of light on the Winter Solstice, when night is longer than the daylight.. Then each day afterwards there’s a little more light and a little less dark. We can do that; in fact, some Christian churches have a celebration on Solstice which culminates with them but going outside and banging away on pots and pans and whatever is handy to make a joyful noise that will frighten away the darkness. That’s kinda cool, and is fully within the Advent tradition of clearing away things that that block the light coming in to us, just as the light came to the world in the manger in Bethlehem.
So, let us be joyful, let us be happy, but let us also slow down a little, do a little more preparation inwardly, and walk rather than run towards Bethlehem. Christmas will still come, and we will still participate in it fully completely and joyfully, but will also have done some work to prepare our own gifts for Christ rather than strictly contemplating gifts for mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, or friends. We think more of Christ and less of self. We need to do the inward work and be a bit of a tortoise. Christmas will still come in due time.
Okay, I’m going to put up my tree now. I’m a little later than usual, but that’s okay. I will still have weeks to enjoy it, and maybe a little extra time that I took before putting it up will make me inwardly more prepared for the glory that is to come. Advent is here. Christmas will come.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats. She has been Episcopalian for over 50 years, and is grateful God led her to the Episcopal Church in various places.